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Tessa Hadley: my short story inspiration

Tessa Hadley is the award-winning British author of six novels and two short-story collections – Sunstroke and other stories (2007) and Married Love (2013). Her latest short story collection, Bad Dreams (Cape), is published on 26 January 2017 and has been reviewed in The Sunday Times.

Here she talks to The Sunday Times’s Sophie Haydock about the advantage of a late-starting literary career, the short story writers she most admires, and the key advice she’d give apprentice writers.

  • Photograph © Mark Vessey

  • Which short story do you feel is your most accomplished?

    There’s one in my new collection, the very first story, An Abduction – I take a great pleasure in that. It’s about a young woman carried off for a day and a night by some bad young men in the 1960s.

    That story was a joy to write; it kind of flowed out. I’d watched a documentary about Patty Hearst, the heiress who was kidnapped [by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 and ended up spending 19 months with her captors]. By the end, she identified with her kidnappers and took part in bank raids.

    After they recovered her, she married and lived the life of a very rich American woman, I presume. And I thought, where do you put what happened to you in that time? Where do you put it in your mind?

    Then I pictured my slightly dull, well brought-up Surrey schoolgirl, who has this day and a night of extraordinary vivid intensity, before she’s dropped off in her old life. Nobody ever knows what happens to her, except her.

    Have you been surprised by your success as an author?

    I was a very late starter, as in, late starter doing anything good. I’ve always written, except for maybe a gap in my early twenties when I just thought I couldn’t possibly do it and was having babies.

    I started again, but I was no good. I wrote and failed; things that I knew weren’t good enough, weren’t true, for quite a long time. I finally got it, and learnt what it is I had to say. I was 46 when I was first published. I haven’t stopped since then.

    In retrospect, I’m so glad I had all that time of being very doubting and invisible, because it’s good for you. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to be writing successfully at 25.

    Do you feel you have to prove yourself more if success comes later?

    All writing is competitive, I’m not being coy about that. But I think it’s about having a long-view, not being entirely of the world of writers. I’m utterly of the world of writing, that’s rather different. But I haven’t always mingled with writers, and that’s good, it’s good leverage. I love being in that world now.

    What would you say is the greatest achievement of your short story career?

    The blessed good fortune of very early on, before I’d even published my first novel, having a story published in the New Yorker [an excerpt from her first novel, Accidents in the Home, was published in 2002].

    As a young reader, all the writers I’d loved had been published in the New Yorker. In terms of exterior satisfaction, I couldn’t rate anything above that.

    How would you describe your writing style?

    I love writing about our present day, the period of my lifetime, back to the 1960s. I sometimes feel that the core business of the novel is the brilliant capture of the everyday reality of the milieu of the writer. We know what France was like in the 1850s by reading Flaubert and Balzac, and through reading Henry James, we know what London was like in the 1890s.

    I love trying to get down the things that haven’t been captured yet about what this half a century has been like, what have been the conditions of people’s lives.

    So I’d say my writing is everyday, it’s British, it’s middle class – that’s what I am, that’s what I was born into – but hopefully, it’s also messy about the edges, not particularly posh and always looking across at other things, other lives, other ways of being.

    And I always hope that it’s in a plain style that’s readable, but very careful. Elizabeth Bowen is one of my inspirations and with her, nothing is ever said twice, no sentence is ever wasted, every sentence must add something that changes the whole thing. I certainly don’t live up to that, but it’s a good credo.

    Would you say you find your inspiration in plain sight?

    That’s exactly it. And that’s what all those years when I was writing and failing were about. The funny thing is, I was always trying to write other people’s books. I so wanted to write like Nadine Gordimer, so I wrote a political novel about the miners’ strike, but it was so wince making and wrong.

    When you find the thing that is the story you know, that you have the authority to tell, it’s the thing that’s been there in plain sight all along.

    It must be like putting on a favourite jumper.

    Exactly that, but in writing, your favourite jumper you’ve never worn before. And when you put it on, it’s the jumper you’ve been wearing all your life.

    Who are the short story writers you most admire?

    Where to begin? Chekov, of course, who is in some ways the fountainhead of the kind of short stories that prevail today – that piece of life that sort of pours out, and then turns a corner unexpectedly, and then stops, and ha, there was a punch line, and ah, that was what it meant. It doesn’t give you that satisfaction, but it finds its own fulfilment in a quiet, sideways way. Chekov is unsurpassable.

    I love Alice Munro, too. She is such an extraordinary short story writer. Hers are long stories, and they’re not like any body else’s work.

    And the wonderful Irish writer John McGahern. His stories are magnificent little broken-off, enigmatic pieces of life, drilled down so deep into psychology and the physicality of that moment.

    Those three writers do that thing I love – write about their contemporary world, write about the deep knowledge they have of where they live and how they live, that moment of history, that moment when those conditions prevailed and those lives were possible, and when experience felt that way.

    What’s your advice to short story writers who may not be published yet?

    Don’t get bogged down in a novel before you’re able to cope with a novel. I definitely learned to write by writing short stories, no question of that. And I gradually learned to transfer the things I was getting hold of across into the novel form.

    And think about intensity – you only have a small amount of space, so you mustn’t waste it. You need to pick on something really burning. Even if you’re writing a simple story without any big revelations, you have to have a point. It has to mean something. It has to add up to something.

    Sometimes I do read apprentice writers and I think it’s all very vivid with lovely sentences, but why are you telling it us, what are we to take away? You should be telling the story for a reason. It should reveal something to the reader, who will think, yes, that’s how things are, and it will feel like a surprise.